Review: 2012 Mazda Mazda5
By Chris Haak
Back in the dark ages, there were cars and trucks. Then there were cars with cargo beds and trucks with seats. Then there were vans. Then there were hippies in custom vans. Then there were minivans, built on a car’s platform. Then over several generations, those minivans grew to be almost 17 feet long and weigh more than two tons. With its new-for-2012 Mazda5, Mazda is banking on the idea that perhaps we need a reset of the definition of the word ‘minivan.’
The Mazda5 has basically everything any other minivan does – except an optional V6 – such as three rows of seats, sliding doors, a rear hatch, and a cargo area behind the third seat. The biggest difference is that it’s much, much smaller. It’s about 20 inches shorter than a 2012 Sienna (180.5 inches vs. 200.2 inches) and more than a half ton lighter (3,455 pounds vs. 4,585 pounds). As they say, there’s no such thing as a free lunch – so in literally every inside dimension (headroom, hiproom, cargo area, shoulder room, legroom), the Sienna is bigger, with the sole exceptions being first row legroom (40.7 inches vs. 40.5 inches) and second row legroom (39.4 inches vs. 37.6 inches). Of course, the Sienna makes up for its legroom deficit in the third row, where it tops the Mazda5 by almost six inches (36.3 inches vs. 30.5 inches).
Still, not many people ever need seven passenger seating, and even fewer need seven passenger seating along with cargo space behind the third row. There are some definite benefits to reducing the size of a minivan from the maxi size to one that fits better with its name. For instance, the Mazda5 tops every variant of the Sienna by at least three miles per gallon combined (21 city/28 highway for the Mazda vs. 19 city/24 highway for the Sienna 2.7 liter and 18 city/25 highway for the Sienna FWD 3.5 liter). Of course, the fuel economy argument falls apart a bit when the comparison group expands to include the Odyssey Touring with it six speed automatic and cylinder-deactivation technology. That big boy is rated at 19 city/28 highway/22 combined, or just 2 MPG behind the smaller, lighter Mazda.
The other argument, of course, is that a 3,500 pound van is more fun to drive than a 4,500 pound one. I’m not arguing that point. While I have yet to sample a Sienna SE with its lowered and firmed suspension, none of the Mazda5’s larger competitors can come close to offering the little guy’s level of entertainment on twistier roads. Unfortunately, though the Mazda5 can still be purchased with a six-speed manual (!), that option is limited to the lower trim lines. Automatic-equipped 5s get a five-speed automatic, which is one ratio behind the class leaders, and that extra ratio would have helped both acceleration and fuel economy.
Why would someone buy a Mazda5 rather than a more mainstream (ahem, larger) minivan? Though it lacks some of the comfort and utility of a larger van, it uses less fuel, is more entertaining to drive, it’s easier to park, and for the price of a loaded Mazda5, you can’t even get the most basic, stripped-down Sienna (which has a super-cheap black plastic grille and non-privacy rear windows, both of which look terrible on family haulers). In contrast, the Mazda5 is the first and last Mazda to incorporate the company’s Nagare design theme, and though it’s a bit weird (what with the deeply sculpted, multiple swage lines), it does add visual interest to a vehicle category that typically has very little of that.
Despite the small exterior and a platform related to the Mazda3 compact, the interior is kind of a big-on-the-inside, small-on-the-outside design, which is a good thing in a small people-mover. There is plenty of room for two tall parents and two car seats behind them. The third row is basically unusable by adults (unlike in a full-size minivan), but would be OK for kids. Despite being the uplevel model, the Grand Touring Mazda5’s front seats adjusted manually, but it was easy to find a comfortable seating position. I am somewhat disappointed in that the 5’s interior lost some of the Mazda3’s premium feel. For instance, where the 3 has a soft-touch upper dash, the 5 has hard plastic (at least it’s the low-gloss variety). The door panels were also uncomfortably hard. Sadly, as automakers add features and performance to newer cars, they seem to be paying for some of that with more and more hard interior plastics.
For my tester’s $24,720 as-tested MSRP, the van came with the Grand Touring spec, and that meant leather-trimmed seats, 17 inch alloy wheels, rain-sensing wipers, heated front seats, xenon headlights, automatic climate control, power moonroof, remote keyless entry, cruise control, steering wheel-mounted audio, four wheel disc brakes, front and side impact airbags, curtain airbags, and Sirius satellite radio. The only option on the sheet was a $50 rear bumper guard whose presence I didn’t even notice. A comparably-priced Sienna has virtually none of this equipment.
Since the 2.5 liter four cylinder produces just 157 horsepower and 163 lb-ft of torque, “fun to drive” means something different in the Mazda5 than it does in many cars. It’s more of a conservation of momentum-type of fun, since you don’t have to slow down as much around curves, and therefore the engine’s power deficit isn’t as much of an issue. Still, despite the 5’s 1,000-pound weight advantage over a Sienna AWD, each Sienna horsepower has to move 17.2 pounds of emasculation*, while each Mazda5 horsepower needs to move 22.0 pounds of mini-minivan. Passing on two-lane roads and merging into heavy traffic require some lead time and planning, but they are possible.
Steering feel is much more lively than in other vans, despite its electro-hydraulic power assist that serves to remove some road feel. I’m sure this is largely a function of the 5’s C-segment roots and lighter weight, but it’s nice to believe that Mazda still takes its “Zoom Zoom” thing somewhat seriously. Braking is excellent – for a van. The pedal is firm and doesn’t have a particularly long travel before biting down. It really is a pleasure to drive, despite my being accustomed to vans with torquier V6s.
Because of its small size, Mazda made the most of what space is available. If you don’t need to attach child seats to the second row captain’s chairs, there are handy storage compartments beneath the second row cushions. There’s also a mini console with two cupholders that can flip open from the right-hand second-row seat. If child seats are attached, you can forget about using that storage. Of course, all of the seats fold flat, which creates a reasonably-large cargo area when needed. With the third row folded and the second row seats open (likely the most-frequently-used layout among 5 buyers), there’s a reasonable 44.4 cubic feet of cargo room. With the third row seat open, there’s 11.3 cubic feet of very vertical cargo room.
Another intangible benefit of the Mazda5 is that it’s interesting looking. Years ago, before my family owned a minivan, I borrowed a mid-1990s Chrysler Town & Country for a few days while my car was in the shop. I could not believe the disrepect that fellow motorists showed me; I was constantly passed on the right at high speed, cut off, and worse. I don’t really see that driving my family’s Sienna anymore, yet there are still men in some circles who feel that driving a minivan somehow makes you less of a man (though I’d argue the opposite, it’s the reason behind my earlier emasculation joke). The Mazda5, however, seems to emit a vibe that you’re not a nerdy dad consigned to drive a soccer mom-mobile, but that instead you’re sensitive to your resource consumption and value style and a more entertaining driving experience than the average minivan driver does.
It’s certainly not the right answer for every family, and probably not even the right answer for most families, but I’m glad that Mazda decided to break the template of ever-larger minivans and build something a bit off the beaten path. Given the company’s relatively-small scale and independence from former parent Ford, it’s important that it keep its lineup fresh, innovative, and competitive, and I believe that’s what the Mazda5 offers to buyers.
*I’m allowed to make fun of the Sienna because I own one.
Mazda provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.